The relationship between cinema and time is the fascination of many a great director. It is this burgeoning art-form’s slipperiest, most mysterious aspect, for film is at once capable of expressing something about time’s passage that’s essentially inexpressible in any other form, and yet is still hopelessly in time’s thrall, unable to stop the slippage of passing minutes, days, years. A filmmaker is doing what Tarkovsky called ‘sculpting in time’; carving, chipping, sanding and preserving a collection of indelible moments, made vital and lasting by their being deemed to be the centre of this person’s art. When I think about time in the cinema, I often think first about Richard Linklater, one of my first great cinematic loves, whose obsession with the relationship between cinema and time is accessible, and makes for wondrous and warm pieces of work. Last year, only one film seemed truly and meaningfully in conversation with time, and the way cinema serves as a blessing and a curse through its relationship with time. That film was Aftersun – a feat all the more astonishing for being the debut of filmmaker Charlotte Wells.
Drawn directly from Wells’ life, Aftersun follows a father, Calum (Paul Mescal) and daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio) – he just turned 30, she on the cusp of teenagerdom, as they travel to a sun-drenched Turkish resort for relaxation and family bonding. The trip is seen through the figurative and literal lens of an older Sophie, now about the age Calum was then, as she watches and rewatches footage of the trip recorded on Mini-DV Cam, the grainy, early-noughties digital footage serving as regular interstitials throughout the narrative, a reminder that we are watching a reflection, a time long passed that holds as much mystery as nostalgia. Through Wells’ gentle, observant eye, we quickly learn that Calum, though trying his best to be a positive father figure for Sophie, is struggling with very serious depression. It is strongly implied that this trip is the last Calum and Sophie ever took.
At once a celebration of digital memory and an examination of its limitations, Charlotte Wells’ sensational debut is a shattering, deeply moving journey through the director’s own aching reflections of a childhood snapshot, and the father she never truly knew. It is one of the best films you’ll see this year.
Drawing on the films of Lynne Ramsay and Chantal Akerman, Wells’ camera seeks details, clues, aching little fragments of recollected flotsam – her images at once speak volumes and reveal very little. Aftersun is a film that trusts its viewers to fill in the gaps with their unconscious, that trades in the belief that specificity is the key to universality. For children of the millennial generation, Wells’ subtle but exacting recreation of the era – from her note-perfect soundtrack selections to the particular fascinations of young Sophie (like getting a single braid in her hair) – will prove intensely evocative. I felt myself rocketed back to childhood through virtue of the colours, the warmth, the simplicity and earnestness of Wells’ visions.
At the centre are two assured, remarkable performances, from a young actress demonstrating immense promise and a now-Oscar nominated actor taking a huge leap toward superstardom. Paul Mescal’s performance here is one of my very favourites of the year, and I’d be truly happy if he won the Oscar come March. His is a performance of restraint and bristling pain, Calum’s tortured interior only showing through in brief moments that serve to further confound and aggrieve the older Sophie for never seeing the signs. As young Sophie, Frankie Corio is wondrous – perfectly capturing the knife-edge feeling of a tween grasping for adulthood but woefully under-prepared for the complexity of what they’ll find on the other side. The two enjoy a chemistry of such fluid ease that the feeling of watching a filmed memory becomes second-nature within minutes of the film’s beginning.
Aftersun is Charlotte Wells’ debut, a fact that boggles the mind. Naturally, as with most first-time filmmakers, the influences she’s drawn from are occasionally worn on her sleeve, most notably in a series of dreamy (and effective) asides set in a Morvern Callar-esque strobe-filled nightclub. Wells’ exploration of film as a key to the past that obscures as often as it reveals is perhaps more thematically daring than structurally, as the film proceeds in a fairly straightforward fashion, rather than attempting to capture the more random-access function of actual memory. These are the occasional, expected wobbles of a first-time filmmaker – but they are so few and far between that they seem utterly inconsequential. Aftersun’s genuine feelings of grief, longing and pure familial love are rich, concentrated doses, single images arriving laden with portent and power (the finest being a shot of a polaroid picture slowly coming into focus as a scene continues around it, a visualisation of the very ideas at the centre of Aftersun). Rarely in recent times have I found myself so moved. In the theatre I sobbed. When the film ended I called the people I love most and cried some more. Aftersun depicted the memories of someone I’ve never met, and yet they felt like mine. I cried for the joy of rediscovering them, and the knowledge that they exist in a world to which I’ll never be able to return.
Aftersun in cinemas now.
Movie title: Aftersun (Wells, 2022)
Movie description: At once a celebration of digital memory and an examination of its limitations, Charlotte Wells’ sensational debut is a shattering, deeply moving journey through the director’s own aching reflections of a childhood snapshot, and the father she never truly knew. It is one of the best films you’ll see this year.
Date published: February 23, 2023
Country: United Kingdom, United States
Author: Charlotte Wells
Director(s): Charlotte Wells
Actor(s): Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall